“I’m not okay.”
That’s what Courtenay McFadden wrote on her blog after the two U.S. World Cups.
In a U.S. cyclocross season defined by injuries to several of the sport’s top riders, McFadden’s leg injury suffered in a mountain bike crash the week before Waterloo was perhaps the most devastating.
Why? Well, McFadden has been through some things in the last two years.
After finishing 15th at the 2017 World Championships in Bieles, McFadden headed home to have surgery on her right hip. She had long suffered from a Femoroacetabular Impingement caused by an extra bone in her hips, and after an injury at the 2016 KMC Cross Fest, she knew she had to do something about it to keep racing.
McFadden had her first surgery in February 2017. She spent the summer recovering and returned to race cyclocross in the fall. She dubbed the new right pain-free hip Hip 2.0.
McFadden went on to have a successful season, capped by fourth-place finishes at both the Pan-American Championships and Reno Nationals. However, as she was racing strong, she knew a second hip surgery loomed at the end of the season.
McFadden had surgery on her left hip one year after the first. The left hip is now Hip 2.0 2.0.
The recovery from both surgeries is probably one most cyclists would be unable to face. “Four and a half weeks on crutches,” McFadden said. “Spinning on a spin bike. I was allowed to do 30 minutes after 8 weeks, and then I could slowly add more time at 12 weeks. No hills, no sprinting. Then by four months, you’re allowed to try and push it a little bit more if it doesn’t hurt.”
Recovering from surgery is a difficult, often painful experience. The first time through, you feel pains and aches that you cannot help but wonder if something is wrong. Fortunately for McFadden, the second time around was a bit easier since the Hip 2.0 2.0 surgery was a repeat of the Hip 2.0 surgery.
“Things weren’t as scary the second time around,” she said. “It’s like I knew feelings I had were totally normal. I didn’t need to freak out about it. It happened with my first hip and it was fine.”
With the recovery of her left hip nearly the same as the right, McFadden had a benchmark against which to compare her progress. “I was able to put my head down and plug away at rehab, which I think its good and bad, when I look back at it now. It was the same timeline, but the second time I was definitely trying to beat my first time. I kept asking, am I doing better than last time?”
As mid-summer rolled around, McFadden was preparing to hit the ’cross course running in September.
A September to Forget
After racing well in September 2017 after the Hip 2.0 surgery, McFadden was hoping she would be ready in September 2018. She had a big September planned with trips to Rochester, Reno, Waterloo and Iowa City.
When August rolled around, however, the feeling was off.
McFadden registered for Rochester but did not make the cross-country trip from her Washington home. “In July, I was planning on doing Rochester. With the summer I had, I felt like I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be in mid-August, and I was like, you know, mid-August I didn’t feel like I would be race-ready by the time Rochester came.”
Despite not feeling well, she stayed home and jumped in a local race against the men. Her fitness was not necessarily where she wanted it to be, but her newly repaired right hip was. “That was my first race on the newly repaired hip,” McFadden said. “The race all together went well, but it hurt more than I anticipated in my hip. But the pain didn’t linger, which is good.”
The next weekend, McFadden planned on doing a local race on Sunday before heading to Reno for RenoCross on Wednesday. On Saturday, things went horribly wrong.
“I decided to go for a short mountain bike ride on Saturday,” she said about the weekend. “I was wearing baggies, it was raining, and I had a multi-tool in my pocket. I was on a trail I’d ridden so many times that I know it really well, and I launched myself off a drop that I’ve launched myself off of many times. I was in midair and said, ‘Oh crap.’ I was headed directly toward this clump of roots and it was very wet.”
She continued, “I thought maybe I would be able to save it, but there was absolutely no way I was going to save it. I hit those roots, and I was on my side. I landed on the multi-tool in my pocket, like right on my lateral quad, IT band area. It probably hurt more than two hip surgeries.”
McFadden coasted down the mountain, trying to pedal where she could. Fortunately, her hip was okay, but by that evening she could not walk. The same was true on Sunday. RenoCross was out, and Trek was only a week away.
“In my head I wanted to be okay,” McFadden said. “I thought it had gotten better during the week, but then I raced Trek and that was not good. That was kind of the start of the downfall of everything. It was more the leg than the hip. The hip is pretty solid. It was just that giant hematoma and cluster of tissue that has built itself up on the side of my quad.”
Troubles at Trek
McFadden headed to Waterloo, Wisconsin with the rest of the cyclocross world hoping to be okay for the World Cup that Sunday. She took to the line, but right from the start, she knew things were bad.
“I started the race and was like, ‘Oh dear,’ literally off the line I almost burst into tears because I knew it was not going to be good. I couldn’t even accelerate. I had nothing in the tank and I felt horrible. My leg hurt and I had no power. I just wanted to quit.”
McFadden stuck with the race, but it was perhaps the toughest afternoon ever for her on the bike. “It was kind of what really demoralized me,” she said. “You spend seven to eight months rehabbing, and I didn’t rehab and train that hard to get 30th place at the World Cup. It was really disappointing I had this injury. I was basically pedaling around with one leg because my left side was useless.”
It has been a long time since McFadden has found herself at the back of a cyclocross race. With how she found herself fighting for at best 30th place, the support from the fans in Wisconsin actually made things worse.
“I appreciate people cheering for me, but when you hear people cheering for you and they’re saying, ‘Come on, come on, push harder.’ I was literally going my hardest. I don’t think you understand, but I can’t. I know they’re just trying to be positive and rooting for you, but the demons that were in my head at that time and hearing that broke me down even more.”
One of the toughest competitors out there, McFadden stuck it out to the end, even if it was for only one reason. “Big thanks to Trek and their equal payout,” McFadden said. “I think that’s the only reason I finished that race. I was like, ‘I’m still in the money.’ That was the mantra in my head. ‘I’m still in the money.'”
The Road Back
There is no question that a big part of why McFadden has risen through the cyclocross ranks is her toughness and dedication as an athlete. After having quite possibly the worst day of her career in Waterloo, she refocused on fighting through the pain and getting better for the Jingle Cross World Cup the next weekend.
“It was challenging to mentally wrap my head around what happened,” she said. “I wanted to be better for Jingle, and I put a lot of emotion and physical energy into getting better that week between Trek and Jingle.”
It was a task too tall for one of the toughest competitors out there. “I was just emotionally cracked come race time. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t focus on the task at hand,” McFadden said. She took a DNF in the Jingle Cross World Cup and bailed on Sunday’s C1.
Her results in the Midwest were not what McFadden spent four weeks on crutches and countless hours spinning on a spin bike for. She headed back home to Bellingham and decided the best thing to do was take a break.
“I knew I just needed to step back for the month of October and regroup my physical and mental self,” she said. “I just wanted to be home and see my bodyworkers, see the people who can help me out. Be able to train, recenter myself mentally and then come back at Cincy.”
Recovering physically is something McFadden is a now a professional at. Recovering mentally was the tougher task she faced. “I pretty much knew after Trek that I was in a hole, emotionally I was really in a hole that whole week, and then it just got worse at Jingle.”
The challenge for McFadden was that the race in Waterloo was hard to shake. She has sacrificed a lot to recover from two hip injuries, only to have another leg injury take her down in a race she placed a lot of importance on. She needed to come up with a plan for dealing with that memory.
“I’ve kind of written it off, and I’m trying to forget that race altogether and know that that isn’t me,” she said about her day in Waterloo. “That’s not me as an athlete and that does not define me as an athlete. I just need to move on from it.”
McFadden will be the first person to tell you that she blessed to have a strong support network in the Seattle area. Her husband Chris, her chiropractor, her massage therapist, they all help to keep her healthy and provide support.
Then there is the larger Seattle cyclocross community.
McFadden came up through the Seattle-area MFG Cyclocross series and in 2012 and 2013 made the transition from local hero to a player on the national UCI scene. As it turns out, one of the best places for McFadden to be was back with the ’cross community that has seen her grow as an athlete.
“I did a local race last weekend that was great,” she said. “One, obviously to build confidence that I can race my bike and I can still push hard, but also to connect with the community that supports me. That kind of helped lift my spirits up. And then changing my mindset from being an injured athlete to being an athlete and getting me back to the way I felt prior to this silly little hip injuries that have consumed my life for far too long.”
The 2018/19 cyclocross season has not gone the way Courtney McFadden envisioned it would. However, after taking a much-needed month at home, there is still plenty of cyclocross left for her to race.
Season 2.0 kicks off on Saturday at the Cincinnati Cyclocross weekend. When she hits the line, McFadden will have a new focus for her racing.
“I just want to feel good on the bike,” she said. “I want to feel good on the bike when I’m racing. I want to feel like I raced my bike, I don’t want to feel like I suffered through a race, if that makes sense. I want to be able and go out there and say, ‘I felt really good. I raced really hard, and this was my result and I am happy with that because I could not have done any better.'”
“I want to be able to push and not really focus on results. Focus on being the strong, solid athlete I know I can be.”
With the pain McFadden has suffered through and the toughness she has shown recovering from injuries and surgeries, counting out a strong return this season would not be wise. Even if it is not this weekend in Cincinnati or next weekend at Pan-Ams, she will likely be back as a factor at the front of U.S. UCI races in due time, and her rough start to the season will be a distant afterthought.